Packwood Returns to Talk Taxes, Not Scandal (Updated)
Updated 3:17 p.m. | The Finance Committee was in a mood to reminisce Tuesday morning about the good old days, when Sen. Bob Packwood played a key role in negotiating a bipartisan overhaul of the tax code.
The Oregon Republican was back Tuesday at the committee he once chaired to testify about that bipartisan success, where lawmakers in both parties worked with President Ronald Reagan on the 1986 tax deal. Packwood’s successor, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, was on the dais as the ranking member of the Finance panel, having held the gavel last Congress with Democrats in charge.
But no one really wanted to talk about the circumstances that led to Wyden’s arrival in the Senate: Packwood abruptly surrendered his gavel and resigned from the chamber amid a sexual harassment scandal that roiled the chamber. For all his legislative skill — and he had plenty — at the end of the day, Packwood was a disgrace.
Wyden distanced himself from the invitation of Packwood, who left the Senate in 1995 after the chamber spent 33 months investigating his unwanted sexual advances toward women.
“The Republicans chose Sen. Packwood,” Wyden said when asked how he felt about Packwood testifying. Wyden’s witness was former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J.
For his part, Packwood was relaxed at the hearing and engaged with his fellow senators over the intricacies of passing a tax bill.
“It seemed like any other hearing I’ve participated other than I was up there instead of down here” testifying, Packwood said afterward.
“If you know what you’re talking about, it isn’t that difficult, unless somebody is dogging you and trying to really box you into a corner, but none of these [senators] were doing that,” he added.
During the hearing, Packwood used his diary to recall events that helped pass a tax overhaul. His diaries also became the focus of his ethics investigation when he sought to use them to defend his version of events.
After debate over access to the diaries between Packwood and the Ethics Committee, the issue went to the Senate floor for a wrenching debate, culminating in a vote to seek federal judicial intervention to enforce the Ethics Committee’s subpoena.
Some senators said they had concern over Packwood’s appearance. Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, a member of the panel and part of Democratic leadership, called Packwood “an unusual choice” and stressed she wasn’t in the Senate when Packwood was.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski was also not amused. The Maryland Democrat served on the Ethics Committee during the Packwood inquiry.
“I leave that to the Finance Committee,” Mikulski said of the decision to invite the former senator. “He would not have been my first choice. He was expelled from the Senate for conduct unbecoming of a senator, and involving girls.”
But ahead of the hearing, Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch defended the decision to call Packwood to testify as his panel undertakes what both parties hope will be a successful process of again simplifying the tax code in a divided government.
“I am a big believer in redemption,” the Utah Republican said Monday.
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Hatch said. “What he was criticized for [happened] a long time [ago] and had nothing to do with his current life. … I am never one to hold the past against anybody.”
Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson, another member of the Finance Committee, also backed Packwood’s invitation.
“History is a good teacher,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. Some people make bad mistakes. Some people recover from them. Some people don’t. It depends on how they handle themselves after the mistakes. I know of no reason why he shouldn’t be testifying this morning on taxes and the ’86 tax act.”
Long absent from the headlines, the Packwood scandal reappeared in the news last year when current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked his name on the campaign trail, citing his own influence in eventually ousting Packwood.
The Kentucky Republican was chairman of the Ethics Committee, and Democrats, led by Barbara Boxer of California, criticized him for not holding open hearings on the matter. McConnell reportedly considered countering an effort by Boxer to push a floor amendment on open hearings by seeking floor votes on a similar hearing against Democrats, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts over Chappaquiddick.
While some lawmakers avoided comment when asked about Packwood, Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota was among the Finance members who said the former chairman’s insight was important.
“He was the last guy that did this, and you know, there have been books written about it,” Thune said. “I think this will be strictly in the context of his contributions to the last tax reform effort.”
Hatch referred to the most notable book by name. “Showdown at Gucci Gulch” outlined the deal-making involving Packwood, Bradley, key Reagan administration figures and the late Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill.
“The man was the principal architect, along with Danny Rostenkowski, of the ’86 bill. We’d be dumbbells if we didn’t talk to him, and if Rostenkowski were around I’d like to talk to him,” Hatch said. “Packwood is one of the brightest guys I’ve ever served with.”
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, another Finance Committee member, also backed the move to call Packwood.
“I presume the reason we invited him was not because of that, but because of his knowledge of what it takes to do comprehensive tax reform,” Cornyn said. “What I worry about more than almost anything else around here is … we’ve got big things that need to get done on a bipartisan basis, but I don’t think people are used to doing those sorts of things.”
Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he didn’t want to denigrate a former senator.
“He left under very difficult circumstances, and I think the Ethics Committee did a good job doing their work,” he said.
“I don’t know who invited him, but you know I don’t make that decision. I — maybe I would have made a different decision, but there’s no need to pile on. He’s already been punished.”